The Dallas Morning News on accomplice punishment:
Conventional wisdom suggests that the death penalty is reserved for the
worst of the worst criminals those who commit the most heinous murders.
But in Texas, we sometimes execute accomplices, people who never pulled
the trigger and who might have been only peripherally involved in a crime.
The law of parties permits the court to hold someone criminally
responsible for the acts of another.
Incredibly, an accomplice can be put to death for the triggerman's crime.
That accomplice might not even get his own trial, as Texas allows joint
trials in capital cases.
But proposed legislation would change that.
Several lawmakers are pushing for needed reforms that would guarantee a
defendant's right to his own trial in a death penalty case. Other bills
would rule out sentencing an accomplice to death using the law of parties.
This common-sense legislation, which got a hearing Thursday in a House
subcommittee, would ensure that defendants in capital cases have their own
day in court and are not punished for another's actions. Even death
penalty proponents should welcome these safeguards.
Gov. Rick Perry, who has shown little hesitancy about the death penalty,
expressed concerns about simultaneous trials in 2007 when he blocked
Kenneth Foster's execution and reduced his sentence to life in prison. The
governor urged the Legislature to look at the issue.
Foster, who drove the getaway car during a robbery spree that turned
deadly, faced a legal double whammy. He was tried with the shooter and was
sentenced to die under the law of parties. Even though Foster was sitting
yards away in his grandfather's rental car when his partner in crime fired
the gun, the jury determined that Foster intended to kill or "should have
anticipated" a murder.
Adopting this legislation would send the message that Texas no longer
plans to impose the ultimate punishment for crimes that someone else
committed. These bills, as well as one filed by Rep. Harold Dutton, would
take aim at let's-make-a-deal gamesmanship that pits defendants in capital
cases against one another.
Dutton's HB 298 would exclude testimony from accomplices and informants
who have cut a deal for a reduced sentence. While this common practice
certainly makes a prosecutor's job easier, relying on testimony from a
witness determined to spare himself is a dangerous proposition in
life-and-death decisions. The legislation also would require that
statements from prison snitches be corroborated by a recording.
Prosecutors and police no doubt will argue that these witnesses are an
important part of building a case. But unimpeachable evidence should be
required to take someone's life.
Texas lawmakers have shown little inclination to make sweeping changes to
the state's approach to capital punishment. But these bills would build
needed protections into the justice system that may prevent Texas from
making an irreversible mistake.
(source: Dallas Morning News, Mar. 20)
Reflections on the Death Penalty: An innocent man spared execution speaks
Since I arrived in New York 2 years ago and began reporting continuously
on the issue of the death penalty, I have asked myself every day what I
ought to think about the state taking human lives.
With the start of the lay judge system in Japan this May, regular citizens
will have to confront the death penalty directly, which I think is a
chance for us to begin thinking about the death penalty as our problem. In
Japan, however, there is a dearth of information citizens need to engage
in such discussions. Is not the death penalty an issue concerning the
public, and not solely the Ministry of Justice?
I recently went to Dallas, Texas, to visit Kerry Cook, a former death row
inmate with a broad, easy smile that showed his gentle nature.
In 1977, Cook was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death for the
murder of a 21-year-old woman he did not commit. It wasn't until 1997 that
the dubious nature of the investigation was recognized and Cook's
innocence proven beyond a doubt by DNA evidence, by which time Cook had
already spent 20 years on death row. In those 20 years, Cook saw 141 of
his fellow inmates head to the execution chamber. It was a trip that Cook,
too, faced, as his execution date was set in May 1988. Cook was only
spared, and given time for his innocence to emerge, when the U.S. Supreme
Court ordered a deferment just 11 days before he was to be executed.
Cook's own impending death was not the only one on his mind in those days
before his scheduled execution, for his elder brother had been murdered in
1987. The shock of losing his brother was so great that Cook tried to
commit suicide in prison twice.
Although Cook well knows the pain of a victim's family, he is firmly
against the death penalty, "because there remains a possibility of killing
innocent people like me, even if a trial proceeds cautiously. My brother
was shot to death, but I am still opposed to the murderer being killed in
prison," he says.
A 12-member jury handed down Cook's death sentence by a unanimous vote.
During a retrial in 1994, the jury affirmed that he deserved to die. Why
did 2 juries, which should have felt the common bonds of citizenship with
Cook, make such a mistake?
"In an American courtroom the prosecutor and the judge control the trial,"
explains Cook. "The jury is not left with any doubt about the accusation
as it comes from the prosecutor. And the jury may not have enough
information to form their own questions."
Cook believes the essential problem with the death penalty is that regular
citizens are out of touch with the issue. People just don't know about the
lives of death row inmates, what they think about as they count out their
final days, or how a person can be "murdered by the state."
"I didn't understand anything about the death penalty before being
arrested," says Cook. "If someone had asked me then, I would have said,
yes, the suspect committed a murder, so they deserve the death penalty."
A trend of increasingly harsh penalties based simply on the rationale that
"the person did something bad," couldn't have been the original goal of
citizen participation in criminal trials.
Regarding the disclosure of information about executions, the United
States is far ahead of Japan. At present, 36 of the 50 American states
have death penalty statutes on the books. By law, the execution date must
be set 30 days or more before the actual deed, and that date is released
to the public. It's possible to find execution dates on the Internet, and
even meet the condemned prisoner, should he or she approve. In Missouri,
such meetings are kept private, with no prison guards or officials
As a basic rule, both the families of the prisoners and their victims are
allowed to attend executions, and the admission of journalists is also
common. The state of Oklahoma even encourages journalists to come to
executions. Coverage is so thorough as to include a detailed menu of the
condemned's last meal, while just before the execution is carried out the
prisoner is always asked for his or her final words. So as to make sure
these are heard, a microphone is directed at the prisoner.
It appears that in the United States, no effort is spared in ensuring
transparency and the absolute elimination of doubt, so as to enforce the
death sentence "properly."
The situation in Japan is very different indeed. Meetings with death row
inmates are severely restricted, the families of both the victims and the
condemned are not informed of the execution date, and of course cannot
attend. What death row inmates think, how they live and how they die we do
not know. In the end, is it right for citizens with no real knowledge of
the death penalty to hand down such sentences?
While doing research for the Mainichi's February series on the death
penalty in Japan and the United States, the words of one woman I met in
Oregon stuck in my mind. Aba Gayle, 72, who has forgiven and even now
lends moral support to her daughter's murderer, said she believes the
Japanese are committing murder by continuing the death penalty. Neither
the government nor the minister of justice, nor even the executioner is
taking the lives of Japan's condemned. Each and every one of us is doing
After Kerry Cook was released he got married and had a son, naming him
Kerry Justice Cook, as he wanted to believe in justice again. However, his
anguish continues. Cook was recently forced to transfer his son to a new
school, as Justice was being bullied by his classmates for being the son
of a death row prisoner.
"Once someone is sentenced to death, the family of the criminal is also
sentenced to death," says Cook.
The decision to take someone's life is a heavy one. If the public is not
sufficiently informed about the death penalty, then there is the danger we
will make mistakes that cannot be taken back. There is a dire need for
information about the death penalty to be disclosed to the public before
our citizens take such a heavy responsibility on their shoulders.
(source: The Mainichi Newspapers—-By Takayasu Ogura, New York Bureau)
Jury selection begins in federal death penalty case
200 Southeast Texas men and women were challenged Monday to search their
souls and decide how well they can handle having a man's life in their
The massive jury pool, which filled every seat in the federal courtroom,
will be winnowed down during the next few weeks to 12 people who must
decide whether 30-year-old Joseph Ebron is guilty of murdering a fellow
If they decide he is, the jury must then weigh whether or not he should be
put to death.
Ebron, who is already serving a life sentence for murder in the U.S.
Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont, is accused of helping two other
men kill fellow inmate Keith Barnes on May 7, 2005.
Joseph Batte, the attorney prosecuting the case, urged the potential
jurors to carefully consider their feelings on the death penalty.
"Most people, in my experience, don't really spend a lot of time thinking
about that until now," he said.
Katherine Scardino, defense counsel for Ebron, acknowledged it's not a
decision everyone is comfortable making.
"It's okay if you're not (able to). Some people simply can not do it," she
Jurors in the last death penalty case tried in this area – also involving
an inmate killing another inmate – deadlocked while considering whether to
sentence Ellis Joseph Mosher to life or death. A judge ultimately decided
to impose a life sentence on Mosher for the 1998 slaying of Stanley
In district court cases not involving the death penalty, jury pools
generally are much smaller, usually about 40 people. A trial typically
begins the day after attorneys have had a chance to exclude a handful of
people through a series of questions about their background and beliefs.
In the Ebron trial, that same process will be used. Each attorney can use
20 peremptory challenges to eliminate jurors from the pool. The process is
expected to take about three or four weeks, according to U.S. District
Judge Marcia Crone.
In a non-capital case, the prosecution would be limited to six peremptory
challenges, while the defense would be granted 10.
Monday afternoon, the 200 potential jurors were required to fill out a
questionnaire, which includes questions concerning their feelings about
the death penalty.
Being opposed to the death penalty will not necessarily disqualify someone
from serving as a juror in a death penalty case, Crone noted, as long as
they are able to set aside their personal convictions well enough to give
fair consideration following a possible guilty verdict.
After completing the questionnaire, groups of 20 people will be called to
return to the courthouse in the following weeks. Each potential juror will
be interviewed individually by the attorneys involved in the case.
After a jury is seated, Crone said, it might take up to four weeks to
complete the trial.
As compensation, each of the jurors will receive $40 per day, as well as
44.5 cents per mile that they travel to and from the courthouse each day.
Federal jurors are drawn from Jefferson, Orange, Hardin, Newton, Liberty
and Jasper counties. Jurors required to travel more than 85 miles one-way
have the option of receiving reimbursement for hotel expenses, according
to the Web site for the U.S. District Courts.
(source: Beaumont Enterprise)